In 1887 when she was 13, Rose O’Neill entered a drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald. Her entry was by far the best submission, and she was declared the winner.
But there was a problem. Some of the editors did not believe that the drawing was original. It was too good, and they thought she had copied it.
To resolve the dilemma, they asked her to come to Omaha and execute a drawing in their presence. She did so, and they were convinced. This girl had talent.
Did she ever. While she was a teenager, she continued her drawing, and her illustrations were published by newspapers in the area. When she turned 19, she headed for New York, portfolio in hand, and soon landed some choice illustration assignments from the likes of Truth, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. In 1894, when she was just 24 years old, she began a cartoon strip for Truth magazine called “The Old Subscriber Calls.” It was the first cartoon strip in America written and drawn by a woman.
Rose was invited to join the staff of Puck in 1896, and from then to 1901, she was the only woman staffer there. In addition to her work with the magazine, she picked up independent commissions and was well-known and much sought after during these years. By 1907, she had been married and divorced twice but was making it quite nicely on her own. She had also published and illustrated a novel, The Loves of Edwy.
Two years later she started what was to become her greatest success and something that would make her the richest illustrator in a world filled with people such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and J.C. Leyendecker. She developed a small cartoon character she called a Kewpie, an ever-so-cute infant character modeled after the attendants of Cupid. The character was a small, rounded figure with a top-knot of hair. O’Neill began drawing cartoons with these characters, first for the Ladies Home Journal in 1909 and later for Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Home Companion. The cartoons were highly popular.
Three years later, O’Neill teamed up with a German porcelain manufacturer to produce the first Kewpie doll. These were also popular but fragile. Later, they were made from a softer composite material that rendered them less destructible, and they became one of the first toys to be mass-marketed to the American public. That, in turn, made O’Neill fantastically wealthy.
Despite her wealth, O’Neill continued her work as an illustrator, designing and illustrating ads for Jell-O, Eastman Kodak, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. She bought several homes, including one on Washington Square in New York City. Her beauty, bohemian lifestyle, and flamboyance provided the inspiration for the musical and song “Rose of Washington Square.” She also used her illustration talents to advance the cause of women’s suffrage in New York and elsewhere.
O’Neill also continued to develop as an artist, traveling to Europe and studying sculpture with Auguste Rodin.
Her lavish spending and the Depression depleted O’Neill’s fortune, and she spent her last years in her last remaining home in the Ozarks of Missouri. There she died in 1944.
Middle illustration: The Kewpies comic strip
Bottom illustration: A suffrage poster using the Kewpie characters
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